Transforming crime hot spot into sea of tranquillity
After eight murders and the non-fatal shooting of a five-year-old girl, crime in the old city of York seemed earlier this year to be out of control.
In most cases, police linked either the suspect or victim to one of two local gangs. Booze cans had sprung up, and the drug trade was in full swing. It left residents of the once-peaceful neighbourhood at a loss. Suddenly 12 Division, the area policing district, had become Toronto’s new crime hot spot. The division’s veteran boss, Superintendent Brody Smollet, called it “unheard of.”
Police sought a solution, turning to a three-year-old community policing strategy developed in the aftermath of 2005’s Summer of the Gun as the brainchild of Chief Bill Blair – the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).
The Toronto Police Service dispatched 75 officers as part of its summer TAVIS deployment, split between 12 Division and their neighbours to the north, 31 Division, which encompasses the long-maligned Jane-Finch community. The philosophy was two-pronged: let the Guns and Gangs Unit sweep in with arrests, then dispatch TAVIS, the friendly, visible foot-patrol and bicycle officers who would hold the peace while neighbourhood leaders worked to reclaim their streets.
The impact was significant.
According to numbers provided by police crime analysts, in the 165 days of 2009 before TAVIS showed up, 12 Division had eight slayings and 18 shootings. In the 130 days since – including the summer, typically a period of increased crime activity – the neighbourhood has had just one homicide (a domestic dispute on the second day they arrived, with no gang ties) and nine shootings, none of them fatal. Since TAVIS, the gangs of York are quiet.
“I expect we’ll be successful when we put these programs in place, but I’ve gotta tell you, the numbers are way more than I expected,” said Staff Superintendent Glenn De Caire, who heads up the TAVIS squad from the TPS College Street headquarters. “That’s pretty impressive for that division, that neighbourhood, that geography.”
In 31 Division, the number of shootings dropped to 11 from 30.
This year’s summer surge drew on the failures of a similar initiative last year, when it was 31 Division and the downtown 51 Division that received extra summer officers. In 31 last year, TAVIS quelled the violence only to leave and see it flare again. The area had seven homicides before TAVIS came, one with them, and six after they left.
“That indicated to us we needed a longer period of time, and greater capacity… clearly that we just cannot withdraw from an area. It has to be a phased approach supported by a maintenance strategy,” Supt. De Caire said.
“Not only to get control of the neighbourhood, but to get those [community] partnerships,” added Sergeant Jeff Pearson of TPS command.
They point to partnerships such as the one built with the Eglinton Hill Business Improvement Area, led by local Variety & Video store owner Steve Tasses. The BIA staged a community barbecue over the summer and oversaw the revamping of Coronation Park, located just northwest of the Keele-Eglinton intersection. When TAVIS arrived, the basketball hoops had no nets and an equipment building was run down and covered in spray paint.
Next Friday, 230 youngsters from nearby schools will carve pumpkins in the revamped park, in another event organized by Mr. Tasses.
“TAVIS went in there and cleaned out the park. We went in there and cleaned up the park,” he says. “We did a whole bunch of things in the summertime to get the community to come together. Now that this initiative is over, it’s up to us – the BIA, the homeowners, the tenants – it’s up to us to fill the void [police] created when they got rid of the gangs and the dealers.”
Local councillor Frank Di Giorgio said he’s heard the booze cans have been cleaned up. “I’ve been very happy with the success of the [TAVIS] program,” Mr. Di Giorgio said.
The summer surge has been slowly phased out since last month, an ongoing departure. There are also TAVIS officers stationed year-round in every division.
TAVIS has caught the eye of the province, which has shelled out money to other police forces willing to adapt it for their own communities. So far, 17 have, including Ottawa and Hamilton. However, TAVIS is entirely an Ontario phenomenon (“I’ve never even heard of it,” said Rick Parent, a criminology professor at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University and co-author of Community-Based Strategic Policing ).
Police will wait on updated statistics before deciding which areas next summer’s TAVIS surge will target. Mr. Tasses hopes they won’t have to come back to Keele and Eglinton.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that the area will take a turn for the better,” the store owner said. “But it’s got to be a conscious effort from everyone.”